Into the Woods is the latest Disney revisionist effort to present fairy tales they’ve held dominion over for decades in a new light for a modern audience. It is an adaptation of a Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd: Demon Barber of Fleet Street) play that is almost 30 years old. And for about half of its running time, I genuinely found myself wondering if it was going to turn out to be my favourite musical of all time. Spoiler alert: It isn’t, but it came real close for a while there.
Drawing primarily from stories such as Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood, Into the Woods follows these familiar characters through their standard archetypal journeys and beyond as they get what they wish for, but with unexpected consequences.
As somebody who has never seen the stage version of Into the Woods it is worth noting that the music throughout the film felt as fresh as any piece of music, adapted or otherwise, and at no point felt especially recycled or unjustified. I’m sure die-hard theater nuts will come away shaking their heads at the disservice done to their favourite tracks but I found the music to be enjoyable and as compelling as I’ve ever found Sondheim’s music to be.
The look of the film is absolutely gorgeous, managing to effectively mix the stagnant artifice of a decorated stage set with the earthy naturalism that film can afford. The overall visual tone skews heavily gothic in texture, juxtaposing quite heavily with the primarily whimsical and fleeting nature of the rest of the film but giving Woods a very distinct identity of its own.
The light-hearted inflection that Woods offers is without doubt the key draw here. With leads as charismatic as Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine, it’s all too easy to become entirely entrenched in a world of twee idealism, fragmented on occasion by Meryl Streep’s suitably delicious and energetic turn as the Wicked Witch who ultimately ties the disparate threads together. But such a strength is also Woods‘ downfall, as the moment the story attempts to take a turn for the more dramatic and moral, the film sags precipitously. To call the final act a slog is all too apt and after simply dismissing a handful of key and exciting characters with little fanfare or explanation, the film mostly fizzles out leaving little in the way of satisfaction to cap off the incredibly charming and surprisingly funny first half.
Perhaps it’s all due to the adaptation process, (cuts to characters, events or musical numbers perhaps?) that the third act fails so dramatically to entice or resonate in the same manner that the first half of Into the Woods does. Nonetheless, although it certainly puts a tremendous dampener on the experience, it cannot undo all the pleasantness that Blunt, Streep and company drum up whilst they have the chance.
With a foggy and uneven ending that smacks of poor adaptation, Into the Woods ends up as kind of a mess. If you can look past that to the fun that it opens with though, there’s at least something worth seeing on display here.
Into the Woods is out now in cinemas everywhere